Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina at Berlin State Opera | Live Review

Hugo Shirley   
Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Mussorgsky's opera given a cinematic presentation in this production at the German capital's opera house


Claus Guth’s new production of Khovanshchina at the Staatsoper in Berlin was originally scheduled for 2020. That plan fell foul to Covid, but, as the director notes in a programme interview, if any work is suited to such an enforced long gestation, it’s Mussorgsky’s grand, unfinished historical epic. Those four years saw not only the pandemic, though, but also other events which have shifted the world’s attitude towards Russia and its history.

Guth’s concept hints at this by framing the opera – covering the period of Peter the Great’s childhood, youth, bloody acquisition of power and the subsequent brutal removal of all opposition – as a project carried out by besmocked researchers in today’s Kremlin. They hand out props, spray dry ice, check the cast’s slavishly historical costumes (by Ursula Kudrna), and film the action, which is then simultaneously projected at the back of the stage. One of them, perched at a standing desk, taps out nuggets of relevant background information, projected onto a screen. When each of the main characters arrives, they pause briefly as a little explanatory text appears above them.

George Gagnidze (Schaklovity) and Mika Kares (Prince Ivan Khovansky) | Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus

That all helps with understanding the opera’s notoriously intractable plot, if not necessarily with our ability to engage with it emotionally. But that in part seems to be the point, since as the action starts sets out on the grim path towards its bloody and fiery conclusion in the final two acts, so too do the researchers lose control. The discrete chunks of scenery (design by Christian Schmidt) disappear to be replaced by the bare, open stage. The project is abandoned, they – all of us – are left as mere spectators.

'So much to admire, then, but where’s the sense of profound drama'

It’s a neat idea, but one is left ultimately wondering what it adds, feeling that it simply dampens the immediacy of the action. Which is a shame, given the generally superb musical values on display. In the pit, Simone Young conducts the score (given in the standard Shostakovich version with Stravinsky’s finale) with unshowy authority, drawing playing of burnished power from the Staatskapelle Berlin. The chorus, impeccably prepared by Dani Juris, is terrific.

Taras Shtonda (Dosifey) and ensemble | Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus

The cast is built on strong foundations in the form of Mika Kares’s dangerous, baleful Ivan Khovansky, pitted against the magnificent Dosifei of Ukrainian bass Taras Shtonda. George Gagndize is outstanding as Shaklovity, whose Act 3 aria, accompanied by historical and not-so-historical images of Russian destitution and unrest (video by Roland Horvath), is as close as we get to a direct commentary on the contemporary situation in the country. Najmiddin Mavlyanov makes an impassioned if occasionally wayward Andrei Khovansky, while Stephan Rügamer’s Golitzin feels undercast. Marina Prudenskaya’s Marfa also initially feels a little underpowered, but the enormous virtues of her lyrical, impeccably sung performance become clear as the evening progresses.

So much to admire, then, but where’s the sense of profound drama borne of irresistible, unstoppable historical forces that this work can and should convey? Maybe that would have come across better if the director hadn’t had quite so much time to mull things over after all.

Until 23 June | Tickets available here.

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